Wrapping Octopus Arms Around "Embodied Intelligence" - Evolution News & Views

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Wrapping Octopus Arms Around "Embodied Intelligence"


Some evolutionists have a remarkable ability to attribute design principles to blind, aimless processes of natural selection. A good example can be found in Current Biology, where Binyamin Hochner, a neurobiologist at Hebrew University, tries to convince readers that intelligence, organization and design principles are "embodied" in the octopus as a result of natural selection, just like they are embodied in human-designed robots. Read in astonishment as he compares the two:

Octopuses have a unique flexible body and unusual morphology, but nevertheless they are undoubtedly a great evolutionary success. They compete successfully with vertebrates in their ecological niche using a rich behavioral repertoire more typical of an intelligent predator which includes extremely effective defensive behavior -- fast escape swimming and an astonishing ability to adapt their shape and color to their environment. The most obvious characteristic feature of an octopus is its eight long and flexible arms, but these pose a great challenge for achieving the level of motor and sensory information processing necessary for their behaviors. First, coordinating motion is a formidable task because of the infinite degrees of freedom that have to be controlled; and second, it is hard to use body coordinates in this flexible animal to represent sensory information in a central control system. Here I will review experimental results suggesting that these difficulties, arising from the animal's morphology, have imposed the evolution of unique brain/body/behavior relationships best explained as intelligent behavior which emerges from the octopus's embodied organization. The term 'intelligent embodiment' comes from robotics and refers to an approach to designing autonomous robots in which the behavior emerges from the dynamic physical and sensory interactions of the agent's materials, morphology and environment. Consideration of the unusual neurobiology of the octopus in the light of its unique morphology suggests that similar embodied principles are instrumental for understanding the emergence of intelligent behavior in all biological systems. (Emphasis added.)
Let's consider this logically. Imagine that an octopus body emerges somehow. Hochner seems to be suggesting that the mere shape and materials, in a given environment (water), will impose "the evolution of unique brain/body/behavior relationships" that will give the octopus all those remarkable abilities: "extremely effective" defensive behavior, "astonishing ability" to adapt its shape and behavior, and intelligence to control those eight arms through infinite degrees of freedom. Nice! Let's run an experiment: put a rubber octopus in water and see if all that emerges.

We tease the evolutionists, of course, because they will respond that octopuses have babies with mutations. Give those mutations enough time, and all the goodies will emerge. They will also say that the morphology and neurobiology "co-evolved" from simpler animals. OK, fair enough. Let's put a primitive rubber ancestor in the water and endow it with the ability to make copies of itself. Can Hochner still rescue "embodied intelligence" from critical analysis? The rule will be: no intelligent design allowed!

This means that allusions to robotics are out, too. We need to purge his paper of all references to robots, which are intelligently designed by humans. Even if robots display "emergent properties" that can solve unforeseen problems, the ability to solve those problems was "embodied" in the robots by intelligent design. They didn't come about by pure accident.

Hochner really likes that word "embodied." It appears 32 times in his paper: embodied organization, embodied intelligence, embodied functionality, and more. What does he mean by the word?

The term 'embodiment' implies the dynamic interplay of information and physical processes between four components comprising the embodied creature: the controller, the mechanical system, the sensory system and the task-environment.... While in open-loop robotic systems behavior arises from more hierarchical top-down control, in an embodied organization the behavior arises from the system as a whole through dynamic physical and information interactions among all its components. These reciprocal, dynamical interconnections ensure that the system functions optimally in its ecological niche when each component is adapted (by evolution or self-organization) to the embodiment functionality; this ensures best adaptation in the bottom-up direction, where the morphology and the properties of the material are adapted for interaction with the ecological niche. Proper adjustment of the interactions between the morphology, the mechanical system and the environment achieves physical stability and energy efficiency; simplifying motor control as it leaves it to deal mainly with perturbations.
This is pure gobbledygook. The embodied creature achieves embodied functionality. How? "By evolution or self-organization." Well, which one? Let's try them both and in combination on our rubber ancestor, which we have tucked into a cave-like opening in a tide pool. Self-organization: OK, the primitive arms wriggle and writhe uncontrollably, forming various knots and tangles. Its progeny do the same. We end up with a cave full of tangled-up octopus ancestors, going nowhere.

So we try "evolution" on them (presumably, natural selection). The rubber ancestors develop various defects that are passed on to the progeny. Every once in awhile, a defect causes a change in "behavior." One sinks; another floats; another jerks various arms randomly. Are we onto something grand? If you don't think so, it's unlikely you will be impressed when we combine self-organization with evolution. There will probably be nothing but tangled-up, jerking things washing in and out of the cave or onto the beach, whichever the blind, aimless environment "selects."

Hochner cheated by sneaking robotic design principles into his mythical octopus ancestor that is destined to embody its own intelligence, organization and functionality. In the passage above, he spoke of four components: (1) a controller, (2) a mechanical system, (3) a sensory system, and (4) the "task-environment." These make no sense in a Darwinian world. Controllers control because they have a goal: to take control of something and do something with it. Ever see a rock wanting to control anything? A mechanical system is a system precisely because it already has interacting parts that work together for a function. A sensory system presupposes the existence of a goal to not only receive signals but know what to do with them. And a task-environment presupposes a task; otherwise it's just a blind, careless environment. A rock has no capacity for such things. Neither does a blob of protoplasm, alone or in quantity.

So if we took out all the robotics and other design principles from Hochner's picture of the emerging octopus, and stuck with what Darwinian theory allows (namely, no purpose, no goal, and no desire), the result would be little different from our tide pool marred by accumulating flotsam. "The unusual morphology of the octopus and its highly adaptive behavior is an excellent case in which to explore whether similar embodied organization principles play a constraining role in the evolution and self-organization of biological systems," he says. Sorry; this is begging the question. You can't assume the "embodied organization principles" that evolution needs to produce (this is like the "assume a can opener" joke where the stranded survivors on a desert island are trying to open their one can of tuna). Furthermore, if the only thing that "embodied organization principles" can do is play a "constraining role" in evolution, he's constraining the octopus, not endowing it with power to improve from the bottom up.

Sure, if you put swimming robots already endowed with "embodied organization principles" into the tide pool cave, the principles and the task-environment will constrain them; i.e., they may not be able to carry out all the capabilities that are embodied in them. The ones stuck in the shallow reef may never get to try out their deep diving skills. Embodied principles imply an embodier; principles imply a mind. He assumed "bottom-up" processes created the octopus, but everything he described about robots and controllers implies top-down design.

Actually, Hochner ends up promoting biomimetics, not evolution. Biomimetics is intelligent design. It presumes that a design in nature is so good, it deserves intelligent efforts to reverse engineer it. The octopus is so well designed, he suggests, robot designers should study it for ideas:

Here, I review neurophysiological and behavioral findings from studies of motor control in the octopus as an inspiration for robotics, as well as relevant findings on the neural bases of learning and memory in octopus and cuttlefish. I argue that the embodied organization approach indeed provides an interesting framework for understanding many of the unique features of the octopus nervous and muscular systems. Embodied organization thus appears a valid approach for further understanding the functioning of complex dynamical biological systems.
It's the "amazing abilities of these animals" that's inspiring Hochner, not their evolution. It's irrelevant, then, when he shares his faith: "I believe that it is a universal constraint in the evolution of adaptive behavior in animals, both simple and complex." Belief is a wonderful thing, but it's not science.

Purged of the evolutionary mumbo-jumbo and personal faith, the rest of his paper becomes quite enjoyable. He describes the flexible arms of the octopus with their unique neuromuscular system, the unique organization of the cephalopod nervous system with its "exceptional anatomical organization," the special organization of the "motor arm control," and other items implying intelligent design.

In his conclusion, he once again promotes his faith, and prophesies that Darwinism's promissory notes will, some day, be paid: "this approach, which has been instrumental in building robots with high adaptability to their task environment, is possibly also applicable to the evolution and self-organization of complex biological systems." Embodiment -- a term from robotics -- may one day unlock the mystery of life.

If you are inclined to wait for Darwin to pay on that promissory note, be our guest. The rest of us will watch robot designers taking notes from the octopus-viewing tank, hoping they will invent a housecleaning robot that can do eight jobs at once.